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Providing Insurance, Reassurance

In Charley's aftermath, agents have arrived with checks, advice and the message that 'everything is going to be OK.'

August 18, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Susan Freedman, carrying photos of her hurricane-damaged home, drove her hurricane-damaged car Tuesday to a special center that her insurance company set up in the parking lot of a shopping plaza.

Within two hours, the 53-year-old bookkeeper was waiting in the shade of a State Farm Insurance tent to be issued a $2,300 check to pay for fixing the dent and paint damage on her red Kia Rio. She also got advice about replacing shingles torn from her home's roof, and perhaps most vitally, she felt somebody cared.

"I walked up and said, 'Oh, I'm by myself. I don't know what to do,' " Freedman said. "They listened to me. They let me babble."

In the aftermath of Florida's largest natural disaster in years, insurance companies have arrived in force in the areas worst hit by Hurricane Charley to assist policyholders, cut them checks for emergency repairs or living expenses, or just lift spirits by handing out water, candy or teddy bears.

Damage estimates from Friday's hurricane have been as high as $14 billion.

On Tuesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, accompanied by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, toured by air Lee and Charlotte counties. Thompson announced that his department would make more than $11 million available for Florida relief efforts. Ridge promised that 1,000 more workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would join the 1,000 already in Florida.

FEMA Director Michael Brown announced in hard-hit Punta Gorda that $2 million had so far been issued to victims.

Hundreds of thousands of people still had no phones or running water. About 640,000 people were without electricity, state officials said. The death toll grew to at least 19.

Up and down the state, the men and women in polo shirts emblazoned with insurance company logos may be the closest that residents have come so far to someone who can help them or lend a sympathetic ear. With so much of the fabric of community life in this part of Florida in tatters, the current business of insurance companies here is reassurance as much as insurance.

"People come here obviously to get their claim handled," said Duane Wallace, 41, of Mount Dora, Fla., the catastrophe team manager for State Farm, which says it has provided 2,900 agents, adjusters and other employees to assist policyholders. "But in the process, we try to reassure them that everything is going to be OK. The most important thing is to empathize."

"When you have an event of this magnitude, you want them to be happy," said Bill Mellander, a member of the national catastrophe team dispatched by Allstate Insurance to Punta Gorda. "You want them to be taken care of, and taken care of fast."

It was not always so. One of the painful lessons learned when Hurricane Andrew buzz-sawed across the Florida peninsula south of Miami 12 hurricane seasons ago was that many insurance companies were unprepared to handle a catastrophe of such magnitude. Residents whose homes had been totaled waited weeks, or longer, before seeing a representative of their insurance company.

Damage to property was so vast that some insurers pulled out of Florida, in some instances without settling claims that had been filed by Andrew's victims, said state Rep. Kimberly Berfield, chair of the Insurance Committee in the Florida House of Representatives.

"It was an unfortunate situation with Andrew, but we learned from it," said Berfield, a Republican from Clearwater, near Tampa, who on Tuesday was visiting southwest Florida to see how insurers were performing. Andrew, she said, taught insurance companies and the state "how to get out and communicate more quickly with people so they can get their lives back in order."

For America's largest insurers, that now means mobile, air-conditioned command posts with computer workstations, satellite communications and Internet capability. Even when a disaster like Charley wipes out local phone service and electricity, these offices on wheels allow insurance adjusters to call up information on a policyholder from databanks back at headquarters and get the claims process started.

The logistics for deploying these special units require a careful, military-style choreography that, in the case of a hurricane, may begin days before the general public hears of the looming storm.

Two days before Charley made landfall in Florida, Mellander said, Allstate had massed 600 adjusters and technical and administrative personnel in Orlando, in the center of the state, along with five mobile response vehicles ready to roll. By 7 a.m. Sunday, Mellander said, his Allstate mobile unit was open for business in a parking lot outside insurance agent Jim Black's office in Punta Gorda.

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